(Midland, Texas – November 15, 2012)
What was supposed to be the last event of a four-day salute to veterans turned into a horrible tragedy Thursday afternoon at about 4:36 P.M. in Midland, TX when a Union Pacific freight train hit a truck trailer loaded with a dozen wounded service veterans and their spouses. Four died, two at the scene and two more at Midland Memorial Hospital, where all of the victims, including 17 who were non-fatally injured, were taken.
The “Hunt For Heroes” parade has been a Midland tradition for over a decade, and was supposed to culminate in a banquet and white tail deer hunt for veterans who had been wounded in battle, many from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The entire parade, including another truck trailer also carrying vets and their wives, had passed over the Garfield Street/UPRR crossing when the train, which witnesses said had appeared to be stopped, but then was upon the float carrying the victims in seconds, plowed into the truck trailer.
There were also reports that the Garfield crossing is elevated and there was speculation that the truck carrying the veterans, their spouses and two escorts, may have hung up on the tracks or, at least, slowed to cross the hump where tracks and the street intersect.
Midland Memorial Hospital spokesperson Marcy Madrid confirmed that there were a total of four dead, seven admitted in stable condition, and another 10 in critical condition.
Witness Eservando Wisler said “I just saw people under the train. There was blood – there was blood all over there.”
“We saw them (the float carrying the veterans) go by,” recalled Dearl Truex, another eye-witness, who added that “I didn’t see the guardrail down.”
Only one of the dead, Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34, of Amarillo, TX, was identified. His mother-in-law, Mary Hefley, told Ricky Treon of the Amarillo Globe-News that the double Purple Heart winner heroically saved his wife as the train bore down upon them. “He pushed his wife – my daughter – off the float,” said Hefley.
Meanwhile, surviving the crash, but far from unscathed, were San Angelo, TX residents Army Sgt. Thomas Pleyo and his wife, Kelli. Sgt. Pleyo was interviewed by San Angelo Standard-Times Local News and Community Affairs Columnist Rick Smith after the tragic event.
“The first trailer made it over,” recalled Sgt. Pleyo. “Then, when we started crossing, the railroad arm started coming down, and five seconds later, the train hit,” he continued. “I threw my wife off (and) then jumped. I barely missed the train.”
Sgt. Pleyo said he was “OK”, but that his wife suffered a concussion and a back injury.
“The irony immediately struck me,” wrote Smith in his Friday column. “These brave men had survived the hell of war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. The men had been struck down by enemy fire, suffered severe injuries, lost arms, lost legs, lost eyes. But they never lost hope. They came back, came home, and underwent who knows how many operations, hours in hospitals and rehab clinics.”
Continuing, Smith wrote, “Those who could found work, took care of their families, went back to school, left war behind to return to a kind of normalcy.”
“Only to be struck down by a train in West Texas,” Smith concluded.
The parade was nearing its end point when the accident occurred. Thursday evening’s banquet and the deer hunt, scheduled for over the weekend, have all now been cancelled in the wake of the tragedy.
National Transportation Safety Board Spokesman Peter Knudson affirmed that the NTSB will be investigating the accident with their 10+ member “Go” Team.